This was the question debated by a group of young women in diverse roles in the construction industry for an article I’ve just done for Construction Manager magazine.
According the Office of National Statistics, women account for just 12.8% of the workforce. Then there is the gender pay gap – the construction and building trades’ supervisors have the highest in the sector, with men paid 45.4% more than women. Little wonder then that the number of women in construction has dropped by 17% in the last 10 years, compared to a 6.5% drop for all workers in the industry.
You can read the full piece to see why it makes economic as well as ethical sense to increase the numbers of women in the industry. Among the topics debated were the fact that more action is needed to break the stereotype that construction is a man’s industry.
The roundtable heard that issues such as a lack of female toilets or sanitary bins are common. As one participant said, if a woman working on site has to leave the project several times a day to find a public lavatory, there is a strong productivity case – as well as a human rights case – for installing facilities.
Thanks to all who took part in what was a fascinating and determined debate – and all power to these strong young women and their efforts to shake up a male-dominated sector.
Tech entrepreneur Alexandre Mars is known in his native France as the French Bill Gates. Having made his fortune creating and selling tech startups, Mars, 41, founded Epic Foundation two years ago. In an interview for The Guardian, Mars explains how his orgnaisation aims to encourage tech-savvy investors to donate to children’s and young people’s charities it has selected.
Mars believes a debate is needed “to explore opportunities and strategies for increasing giving”. At at time when trust in charities is at an all-time low following criticism of some traditional fundraising practices, new ways of engaging donors through technology is surely needed. Such challenges are expected to feature in next year’s House of Lords select committee report on charities, with its focus on digital innovation and financial sustainability.
How does he define the role of philanthropists versus the state? “We need policymakers, we need strong leaders … [but] they don’t have enough money, so where is it [the money]? It’s with the corporate world most of the time, so how can we [business] just step up?”
Ever considered what someone who’s homeless wears to a job interview?
If you’re trying to get back on your feet and into work or training, whether you’re homeless, long-term unemployed or disadvantaged, what you need is smart clothes, but what you make do with is mis-matched separates in the wrong size or style.
Charities, night shelters and hostels receive donations – from food to clothing and practical kit like sleeping bags – and there are plenty of great schemes that support people into volunteering, training or work (that’s if there are jobs to come by and employers willing to hire). But while someone might have the skills and experience for employment, what’s often missing is the confidence-boosting garb to help them look and feel the part.
So I was interested to hear that the second annual Suit Amnesty launches next month and lasts throughout May. The aim is to help homeless jobseekers back into work by encouraging people to gift their unwanted suits.
More than 2,000 suits were collected in last year’s campaign, going to 22 different charities. Sian Thomas, marketing officer at Newcastle charity The Cyrenians describes last year’s donated suits as “perfect for our back-to-work projects which are all about getting people off the streets and preparing them for working life”. She adds: “Owning a suit makes a massive difference and will help our service users achieve their full potential.”
The scheme works with charities like The Cyrenians and Manchester’s Booth Centre that run back to work schemes.
Businesses can take part, acting as drop off points, and boosting their social responsibility profile in the process (apparently some of the firms that took part last year reported up to 14% increase in web hits during the campaign).
Accessible drop-off points include a variety of businesses including The Marketers’ Forum in London, the Malmaison hotel in Newcastle,retailer T.M. Lewin in London and various health clubs, hotels, bars and banks. More information on the Suit Amnesty website.
By coincidence, as I was reading about the project, I also came across a great scheme, Undergarments for Everyone, started by University of the West of England student Ed Tolkien to distribute new underwear and socks to homeless people in the Bristol area.
Last December, Tolkien collected and redistributed hats, scarves and gloves to local people on the streets, but he says many told him the hardest thing to come by was underwear.
Cash donated via collection boxes at the university and at two Salvation Army charity shops in Bristol, will be spent on new pants and socks and given to two Bristol homelessness charities, St Mungo’s and the Julian Trust night shelter.
Sometimes the simplest of ideas can have a big impact.
“A hard road, leading to a better future, is how Chancellor George Osborne spoke of the journey ahead of us in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).
All I know for certain is that it’s already been a bumpy ride for charities, many more of which, it’s now been estimated, receive public money than previously thought. The Third Sector Research Centre believes that some 35% of organisations (rather than between a fifth and a quarter) get statutory funding and of those, 23,000, or 14%, regard it as their most vital source of income.
In the youth sector alone, the magazine Children & Young People Now, has found that of more than 130 charities, 82% are already being forced to cut youth projects because of funding shortages.
And, even with the very welcome one-year, £100 million transition fund announced yesterday to help voluntary sector groups adjust to new public spending budgets, it is going to get tougher. Think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) warned on Monday that these government funded charities are approaching a “maelstrom”. It expects the sector’s income to drop by between £3.2bn and £5.1bn.
So that’s just some of the bad news. But there is good news too as we peer into the gaping chasm of what Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, has called “the deepest cuts to public spending in living memory”.
Along with the transition fund, there’s £470 million over the next four years to build the capacity of the voluntary sector to deliver the Big Society.
I don’t know what this expanded delivery role will actually mean, the devil will be in the detail, but the CSR adds that it will “look to set proportions of specific services that should be delivered by non-state providers including voluntary groups.”
Could this support amount to enough of a lifeline? Possibly, but only if we are really bold and act now! During the economic down-turn last year, the Charity Commission found that only 32% of charities surveyed had taken steps to limit the impact of the recession, with just 14% reducing costs.
An ostrich mentality isn’t going to help. And I don’t say that lightly. I’ve felt that pain. As a charity chief executive, I’ve had to lose staff on occasions when the funding didn’t materialise.
What my last few years at a venture philanthropy fund have taught me is the importance for charities to concentrate on their ‘back office’ as much as their compassion.
It won’t be for everyone, as charities are driven by much more complex ‘bottom lines’ than pure profit and there will be a learning curve, but there’s much to gain from partnership with business. The Private Equity Foundation (PEF) has organised some 15,000 hours of pro bono support for its portfolio charities so I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it can be. In some cases, we’ve worked with charities which have managed the move away from substantial government funding to more sustainable models, while others have achieved huge growth in impact.
Which leads me to better measurement and evaluation. Only the demonstration of effectiveness will ensure support, as government tenders and pays for more services by results and funders choose between a deluge of ‘asks’.
It’s not measurement for measurement’s sake; evaluation can also help create a virtuous circle as organisations scrutinise the data to see where they can improve outcomes. It will become a vital tool, in what’s likely to become a ‘race for quality’ and more foundations should be prepared to pay for it.
Funding from the public and philanthropists cannot plug the hole left by government cuts. But, I believe that business does have a huge contribution to make in safeguarding the sector and I will be doing everything humanly possible to bring more of its money and skills to charities in the coming years.
The story of Lion Face puts the big into big society. Seven years ago, the 20-year-old gang member from the barrios of Aragua, Venezuela, mugged a security guard from the nearby Santa Teresa rum distillery and stole his gun. When Santa Teresa’s security boss caught him a week later, Lion Face was given a daring ultimatum by the company’s wealthy owner, Alberto Vollmer.
In a move worthy of modern folklore, Vollmer said Lion Face could work for him for three months without pay, or be handed over to the police. It was a risky proposition, but a week later, Lion Face came back – accompanied by around 20 fellow gang members who also wanted to work. Vollmer agreed and Project Alcatraz, as it’s now called, was born (the name reflects the idea that people’s worst prison is themselves and the challenge is to escape from themselves).
The project aims to reduce delinquency and unemployment and involves gang members in an intensive (and mildly eccentric) three-month work-study programme that include rugby training and community service. On completion, participants choose between a formal job – in the Café Alcatraz programme, for example, they learn how coffee is produced and packaged- or further education, perhaps via the on-site housing construction workshop.
Santa Teresa, a 200-year-old family run company, is some 4,500 miles from Westminster, but given the current debate about the private sector’s role in big society – and if big society includes encouraging something other than statutory services to tackle social problems – the tale of Lion Face is a salutary one.
Since 2003, five gangs have completed the project and been disarmed. Local crime has fallen by 40% and last year Project Alcatraz won best social inclusion project at the Beyond Sport Summit to celebrate sport-led social change in London. Professor James Austin of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative has said of the management of Santa Teresa that “its viability and profitability are dependent not only on its ability to produce a superior product, but also to generate social value for its surrounding community”.
And that’s not all, several years ago Vollmer negotiated with squatters who wanted to take over land on his sprawling estate; the result was the creation of Camino Real, a 60-acre 100-house community built by the squatters themselves and funded with government housing agency mortgages.
While most large UK businesses have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes that include employee volunteering schemes and donations to local schools or community projects, the ethos and scale of what’s going on at Santa Teresa is closer to the now extinct philanthropic traditions of Quaker companies (think Cadbury, Rowntree, Frys). Vollmer’s philosophy is quite simply that healthy communities lead to healthier profits. As Vollmer himself has said: “If you have growth and well being in the company but not in the community, then you are dead meat.”
Santa Teresa invests about 2% of its profits in social projects and attracts money from other sources including charitable donors. No mean feat given the years of political and social upheaval under President Hugo Chavez’s divisive regime that has pitted poor against rich.
It’s crude to suggest that Project Alcatraz can be replicated elsewhere; the schemes are as much a product of Venezula’s unique political, social and economic context as they are the result of the single-minded determination and social awareness of Santa Teresa’s owner. The best social businesses owe as much to their visionary and determined leaders as to their watertight business strategies and savvy investors, but the Lion Face story shows what is possible when business puts its money where its manpower is.
On a smaller scale, as discussions at a Tory conference fringe meeting today should reveal, there is some evidence that US-style Business Improvement Districts (BIDS) might help plug the gap left by public sector cuts. BIDS are defined areas within which businesses vote to invest collectively in local improvements (and therefore boost their trading environment). The public-private partnership between the local authority and business are funded by a levy on the business rate charged by the council.
Birmingham, for example, has three BIDs which collectively generate around £2m of private sector investment into city centre public areas each year. Birmingham’s BIDs certainly seem successful, winning national plaudits for their nighttime economy and the cleanliness of the city centre streets. Crime figures in the Broad Street BID area, for example, have been dented since the launch of the scheme, from 1,300 incidents in 2005-6 to 995 in 2008-9 and public satisfaction is high.
However, not all BIDs are proving entirely successful, as Edinburgh has found to its peril. Business organisations might be reluctant to participate thanks to the same economic malaise that is leading their statutory sector counterparts to consider retreating from service delivery.
And, given it’s taken five years to get 100 BIDs up and running around the country, how long it will take for the city centre programmes to make large-scale improvements (more to the point, will it be only a handful of BIDs that go beyond the realm of cleaning pavements, erecting floral displays and installing Christmas lights?). Also, as I remember from reporting about West End BIDS 15 years ago when the schemes were being chewed over by a clutch of the capital’s boroughs, there’s a worry about displacement. If improvements stop at the BID boundary isn’t there a danger of creating a two-tier city centre with a clean core and sweeping (literally, in many cases) the problems to the edge of the BID area?
As the public sector cuts back on delivery and all eyes dart desperately towards the twin panaceas of social enterprise and the voluntary sector to adopt its mantle, businesses and business-led partnerships should wake up to the vested interests they have in their local communities. Maybe that’s something to be championed by the new breed of City mayors recently proposed by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles?
The UK has enough Lion Faces. Now what we need are a few more Vollmers.
* A fringe event ‘What role can Business Improvement Districts play in the recovery?’ takes place at 5.45pm today at The Mailbox centre, organised by Birmingham CIty Centre Partnership. Speakers include Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Broad Street BID’s Gary Taylor.